Agricultural leaders heard two polar-opposite yet equally fiery pleas Friday at Colorado State University, where more than 2,000 ranchers, farmers and rural Americans rallied to urge either government action or inaction.
The meeting, hosted by Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, was the fourth of five workshops around the country in the past six months addressing agricultural issues.
About half the audience supported sweeping change in how the government regulates the ailing cattle industry. They voiced adamant support for new rules that would harness the four major companies that dominate the industry.
The other half bemoaned the possibility of more regulation they fear will clog the industry with lawsuits and curtail cattlemen's ability to harvest top dollar for their herds.
At the center of the arguments are new rules floated by the Obama administration that would make the powerful meatpacking companies — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — provide evidence supporting the prices paid for contracted cattle and give small ranchers more opportunities to contest that pricing.
Contracted sales with the big meatpackers have grown from 20 percent of all cattle sales a decade ago to almost half in 2010. While some ranchers say those sales have benefited them, letting them get top dollar for their high-quality beef, others say it unfairly harms ranchers without the clout to negotiate those prices.
"Say there was a terrorist organization that wanted to do irreparable harm to our industry," said Paul Engler, the 81-year-old founder of a 500,000-head feedlot in Amarillo, Texas. "All they would have to do is follow through with the plan that this rule is calling for."
A chorus of boos met Engler's critique, mirroring the jeers that met Kenny Fox's support for the rule change.
"We need this protection. We need to keep our people on the land," said Fox, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
While the two ideologies clashed, there was agreement on many issues, including the trouble facing the nation's cattle industry. The number of American cattle farms has dropped from 1.6 million in 1980 to 950,000 today. In 1980, cattlemen earned 62 cents for each dollar spent on their beef. Today, they get 42 cents.
And most troubling, the declines make ranching unattractive to young people.
Luring youth back to the family farm was a much-discussed topic Friday, with panelists and politicians agreeing that returning profitability to ranching would help.
But when discussion turned toward how to restore profitability to America's small ranchers, the discord grew.
"To get an open, robust market, you've got to get rid of concentration," said Taylor Haynes, a Cheyenne rancher and doctor who raises organic beef.
The new regulations could quash a meatpacker's willingness to pay premium prices for certain cattle, potentially installing flat-rate prices to avoid lawsuits from ranchers who didn't get the premium amount and question the pricing.
"I resent the implication that I need to justify a premium paid for my superior product," said Montana rancher Don Herzog.
Instead of fighting over American consumers, cattlemen should be courting international beef eaters, said Jerry Bohm, general manager of Kansas feedyard operator Pratt Feeders.
That's already happening, said ag chief Vilsack, noting the country's agricultural exports reached $105 billion in fiscal 2010, more than double the exports of 2000.
Celebrate the good news and recognize that everyone in the cattle industry is dedicated to offering the greatest product, said Robbie LeValley, a Hotchkiss rancher and president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, cajoling her peers to work toward solutions.
"We should not be circling the wagons and shooting inward," she said.